Arthur Conan Doyle was a British writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who is the best-known detective in literature and the embodiment of sharp reasoning. Doyle himself was not a good example of rational personality: he believed in fairies and was interested in occultism. Sherlock Holmes stories have been translated into more than fifty languages, and made into plays, films, radio and television series, a musical comedy, a ballet, cartoons, comic books, and advertisement. By 1920 Doyle was one of the most highly paid writers in the world.
—‘This is indeed a mystery,’ I remarked. ‘What do you imagine that it means?’
–‘I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts…’
–(from ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, 1891)
Arthur Conan Doyle was born at Picardy Place, Edinburgh, as the son of Charles Altamont Doyle, a civil servant in the Edinburgh Office of Works, and Mary (Foley) Doyle. Both of Doyle’s parents were Roman Catholics. To increase his income Charles Altamont painted, made book illustrations, and also worked as a sketch artist on criminal trials. Not long after arriving Edinburgh he started to drink, he suffered from epilepsy and was eventually institutionalized. Richard Doyle (1824-83), the uncle of A.C. Doyle and the son of the caricaturist John Doyle, was also an illustrator. He worked for Punch and illustrated chiefly fairy stories, including Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, W. Allingham’s In Fairyland and some of Dickens’s Christmas Books. Doyle’s mother, Mary, was interested in literature, and she encouraged his son to explore the world of books. Doyle’s second wife, Jean, said: “My husband’s mother was a very remarkable and highly cultured woman. She had a dominant personality, wrapped up on the most charming womanly exterior.” At the age of fourteen Doyle had learned French so that he could read Jules Verne in the author’s original language. Charles Altamot died in an asylum in 1893; in the same year Doyle decided to finish permanently the adventures of his master detective.
Conan Doyle’s education took place at home and in a local Edimburgh school until, at the age of nine was sent to a Jesuist Preparatory scholl in Lancashire. During this period Doyle lost his belief in the Roman Catholic faith, but the training of the Jesuits influenced deeply his thought. Later he used his friends and teachers from Stonyhurst College as models for his characters in the Holmes stories, among them two boys named Moriarty. Doyle studied at Edinburgh University and in 1884 he married Louise Hawkins. Doyle qualified as doctor in 1885. After graduation Doyle practiced medicine as an eye specialist (not very succsesfully) at Southsea near Porsmouth in Hampshire. In 1891 he became a full time writer.
Conan Doyle writer
His first story, an illustrated tale of a man and a tiger, Doyle had produced at the age of six. Doyle’s first novel about Holmes, ‘ A Study in Scarlet’, was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The story was written in three weeks in 1886. It introduced the detective and his Sancho Panza and Boswell, Dr. Watson, the narrator. Their major opponent, the evil genius Dr. Moriarty, became a kind of alter ego of the detective.
The second Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Sign of the Four’, was written for the Lippincott’s Magazine. Doyle collected a colorful group of people together, among them Jonathan Small who has a wooden leg and a dwarf from Tonga islands. The Strand Magazine started to publish ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ from July 1891. Holmes’s address at Mrs. Hudson’s house, 221B Baker Street, London, is perhaps the most famous London street in literature.
In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) Doyle exposess the relationship of Holmes with women. The character of Irene Adler becomes in ‘ The woman’.
Already at the end of 1891, Doyle planned to abandon the series. “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do toward pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day”, he confessed. In 1893 Doyle devised his death in the ‘Final Problem,’ published in the Strand in the December issue. Holmes meets Moriarty at the fall of the Reichenbach in Switzerland and disappears. Watson finds a letter from Homes, stating “I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this”.
Doyle’s readers expressed their disappointment and Strand lost 20,000 subscriptions. In ‘The Hound of Baskervilles’ (1902) Doyle narrated an early case of the dead detective. The ingenious murder weapon in the story is an animal. Because of public demand Doyle resurrected his popular character in ‘The Empty House’ (1903). In these following stories Holmes stopped using cocaine. Although Doyle’s later works have been criticized, several of them, including ‘The Three Garridebs,’ ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,’ and ‘The Veiled Lodger,’ are highly enjoyable. Sherlock Holmes short stories were collected in five books. The first appeared in 1892 under the title ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. It was followed by ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ (1894), ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ (1904), ‘His Last Bow’ (1917), and ‘The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes’ (1927).
During the South African war (1899-1902) Doyle served for a few months as senior physician at a field hospital, and wrote ‘The War in South Africa’, in which he defended England’s policy. The same uncritical attitude toward the British empire marked his history of World War I, ‘The British Campaign in France and Flanders’, 1928 (6 vols.).
Doyle in the War
Doyle was knighted in 1902 and in 1900 and 1906 he also ran unsuccessfully for Parliament. Fourteen months after his long-invalided wife Louisa died, Conan Doyle married in 1907 his second wife, Jean Leckie. When his son Kingsley died from wounds incurred in World War I, the author dedicated himself in spiritualistic studies. An example of these is ‘The Coming Fairies’ (1922). But he had already showed interest in occult fantasy before publishing Holmes stories in his early novel ‘The Mistery of Cloomber’ (1888).
Doyle supported the existence of “little people” and spent more than a million dollars on their cause. The so-called “fairy photographs” caused an international sensation when Doyle published a favorable account of them in 1920. The photographs showed fairies dancing in the air. A year after, the Star newspaper reported that the fairies were from a poster.
Doyle became president of several important spiritualist organizations. In 1925 he opened the Psychic Bookshop in London. Among his friends was the legendary American magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926). He believed that Houdini possessed supernatural powers, which the magician himself denied. He wrote on his own psychic experiences in ‘The Edge of Unknown’ (1930), which was his last book. Doyle died on July 7, 1930 from heart disease at his home in Sussex.
A valuation of the Sherlock Holmes’s novels
“My contention is that Sherlock Holmes is literature on a humble but not ignoble level, whereas the mystery writers most in vogue now are not. The old stories are literature, not because of the conjuring tricks and the puzzles, not because of the lively melodrama, which they have in common with many other detective stories, but the virtue of imagination and style. They are fairy-tales, as Conan Doyle intimated in his preface to his last collection, and they are among the most amusing of fairy-tales and not among the least distinguished.” (Edmund Wilson in Classics and Commercials, 1950)
Other writtings by Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle’s other publications include plays, verse, memoirs, short stories, and several historical novels and supernatural and speculative fiction. His stories of Professor George Edward Challenger in THE LOST WORLD (1912) and other adventures blended science fact with fantastic romance, and were very popular. The model for the professor was William Rutherford, Doyle’s teacher from Edinburgh. Doyle’s practice, and other experiences, expeditions as ship’s surgeon to the Arctic and West Coast of Africa, service in the Boer War, defenses of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, two men wrongly imprisoned, provided much material for his writings.
Sherlock Holmes’s precedents and his posterior influence.
Sherlock Holmes’s literary forefather was Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin and on the other hand a real life person, Conan Doyle’s teacher in the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Bell, master of observation and deduction, a legend at the medical school. Another model for the detective was Eugène Francois Vidoq, a former criminal, who became the first chief of the Sûreté on the principle of ‘set a thief to catch a thief.’ Holmes’s character have inspired many later writers to continue his adventures, not always of the same quality.
Many films developed the Holmes’s adventures. Perhaps the best actor who ever played Sherlock Holmes was not Basil Rathbone but Jeremy Brett (1935-1995). Brett devoted himself entirely to the role in a television series produced by Granada TV from 1984 to 1994. The tv scripts were very faithful to original texts.
Photographs not referenced are taken from here
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